Team preview: Radford

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2003-04 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: November 5, 2003, 1:40 PM ET
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The Highlanders are coming off one of the worst records in the program's history.

Radford hadn't finished this low in the standings in 14 years, and had lost this many games only once in the 29-year history of basketball at the school.

So what is everyone in Highlander plaid smiling about?

Second-year coach Byron Samuels, who kept his cool and kept his team together through trying times, is about to be rewarded. He has four starters back, seven total letter-winners and a recruiting class that fills the team's major holes.

He has also got a late-season highlight reel that shows his young team winning five of the last eight games and making an improbable run to the Big South championship game.

"We never gave up even though we really took some bumps and bruises early," Samuels said. "The thing I'm proudest of about the team is they always came to practice, ready to work and ready to improve. I just think we've got a nucleus of really good kids and I'm convinced that had everything to do with our run at the end."

That run was also a byproduct of some talented young players coming into their own. Notably, guard Whit Holcomb-Faye who averaged 14.3 points and 4.1 assists per game to earn Big South Rookie-of-the-Year honors. The 6-1 sophomore steadily improved his defense and shot selection and was a catalyst in the fast finish.

"He is one of the two or three most competitive kids I've ever coached," Samuels said. "He will fight his tail off to win and he brought an unbelievable amount of leadership and enthusiasm that spread throughout our team."

The Highlanders started to jell, though, when Holcomb-Faye moved to shooting guard and fellow freshman Andre Bynum (3.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg) was inserted into the starting five at the point. The lanky 6-2 Bynum started 11 games, including the final nine, and averaged 5.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals over that span. A Fork Union Military Academy product, he brought a dedication, particularly at the defensive end, that helped the team, especially Holcomb-Faye.

"They really complemented one another," Samuels said. "Andre learned from Whit's confident demeanor and that helped his aggressiveness on offense. Whit became better defensively playing alongside Andre."

Another returning starter, 6-3 Olumuyiwa Popoola (6.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg), moved into the lineup after the eighth game and never came out. Popoola played a hybrid small forward position in RU's smallish starting lineup. If Bynum isn't RU's best perimeter defender, than Popoola is. He's also one of the most hard-working Highlanders.

Poopola can play more of his natural guard position this year because of the influx of forwards in the recruiting class, including 6-7, 220-pound junior Brandon Jeffers. A transfer from Howard (Md.) Community College, Jeffers averaged 21.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists last year, and is a missing piece of the puzzle that will allow RU to field a more physically imposing lineup.

Most of the time last year, 6-6, 190-pound senior Aaron Gill (6.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg) was Radford's tallest player on the court. Not a traditional back-to-the-basket power forward, Gill uses quickness and athleticism to get the job done. He was second in the conference in rebounding and hauled down a school-record 21 boards against Winthrop.

He also became RU's best low-post defender and the Highlanders were sunk in the championship game against UNCA when he went to the bench in foul trouble. Samuels sees team-leader Gill and Jeffers as interchangeable pieces at the forward, depending on match-ups. He'd love to see Popoola evolve into the classic sixth man role, coming off the bench to spark the team.

Samuels also sees 6-9, 240-pound Kyle Zaharias regaining his starting job at center. The big junior chipped in 3.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and shot 46 percent from the field last year, but was lost in the shuffle when the team went small.

Two more returnees-6-6 senior Matt James (3.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and 6-5 sophomore Chris Goodin-filled out the rotation. James, a walk-on junior last year, averaged nearly 18 minutes and 5.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in RU's last 10 games. He had a career-high eight points in the BSC semifinal upset of Liberty, and is on scholarship now.

The highly touted Goodin (5.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg) averaged 15.9 minutes of action per game but had typical freshman ups and downs. A heady player, he may blend into a role he's more suited for this season with more big guys on the floor.

Chris Oliver, a 6-7 freshman from Kernersville, N.C., is another of those big guys and Samuels sees him getting minutes. Oliver averaged 21.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks at Glenn High School, and reminds coaches, athletically, of Gill.

Dan Ross of Baltimore, Md., a 6-6 freshman shooting guard, gives the team even more size on the perimeter. Ross averaged 15.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals last season at West Nottingham Academy in Maryland. The extra year of seasoning should allow him to see time as a freshman.

"I told him the same thing I told Holcomb-Faye last year," Samuels said. "You can't come in here and be a normal freshman. We're counting on him."

Reggie McIntyre, a 6-5 freshman from Greenville, S.C, averaged 15.4 points and 9.0 rebounds at Woodmont High, but Radford will bring him along slowly.

Another forward, 6-6 sophomore Chris Prince, is academically ineligible and opted to have knee surgery. He should be back academically and athletically in January, and rejoin the team next season.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

A disaster of a season for the perennially contending Highlanders turned into a feel-good finish. It's obvious Samuels has some talent on the team and he found a way to make unusual combinations work late last year. This season, he has more pieces to help return Radford to the upper echelon.

Most of all, though, when push came to shove, Radford was finally doing some of the pushing and shoving. The book on the Highlanders was always that they were a bit soft. After last season's hardening lessons, though, somebody better get a new book on them.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 327 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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